At the end of the Trojan War, the warrior Odysseus sets out on the journey back home to Ithaca. But he was angered certain of the Gods and the path is beset with mythological beasts, traps and sorceries. During the ten years that pass, his wife Penelope remains faithful, but she is surrounded by young princes who demand that she take one of them as her husband and new King…
Epic, almost seven-hour adaptation of Homer’s famous poem, made for Italian television by producer Dino De Laurentiis and director Franco Rossi. De Laurentiis had also been responsible for the feature version ‘Ulysses’ (1954) with Kirk Douglas but had always been unhappy with the compromises necessary to bring the story down to feature-length. This Italian-French-German co-production, however, delivers almost the entire tale intact.
It’s been a hard 20 years for Queen Penelope of Ithaca (Irene Papas). Not only did husband Odysseus (Bekim Fehmiu) fight in the decade-long siege of Troy, it’s now ten years later, and he still hasn’t returned. The royal court is filled with young nobles who are eating her out of house and home and demanding that she takes one of them to fill the vacant throne. Her son Telemachus (the excellent Renaud Verley) can do nothing but suffer the insults heaped on him by the prospective grooms, led by the insufferably arrogant Antinous (Constantin Nepo, aka Constantin Andrieu).
The frustrated Verley is persuaded by the goddess Athena to look for his father. So he hits the road to visit Troy veterans Nestor (Jaspar von Oertzen) and Menalus (Fausto Tozzi). Neither can give him any information, but Tozzi’s wife Helen (Scilla Gabel) tells of how Fehmiu scaled the walls of Troy alone to find her. Meanwhile, the man in question has washed up on the coast of Phaeacia. Thanks to the help of the young Princess Nausicaa (Barbara Gregorini) he’s been received at court by King Alcinioo (Roy Purcell) and Queen Arete (Marina Berti). After initially keeping his identity a secret, he reveals himself and begins relating the stories of his adventures.
It’s here that the most famous part of the poem begins, of course. Fehmiu has already told the smitten Gregorini about his seven years spent in the arms of goddess Calypso (Kyra Bester), so he begins with his crew’s temptation by the Lotus Eaters and goes on to their encounter with the Cyclops, Polyphemus (Samson Burke). This sequence was directed by horror maestro Mario Bava, and some sources claim that Bava also worked on the same scenes in ‘Ulysses’ (1954). However, others suggest there is no evidence for this assertion. Either way, it makes perfect sense for De Laurentiis to bring Bava on board, though, given his legendary ability with optical trickery and practical SFX.
And Bava does not disappoint, delivering a substantial sequence that proves to be the highlight of the series. The scale of the giant’s cave is achieved with a combination of matte paintings and perfect camera positioning, aided by appropriately oversized props. Forced perspective and high angles emphasise the creature’s size and some quick cuts with a giant hand (very reminiscent of a couple of the same moments in ‘Ulysses’ (1954)) only serve to further the illusion, rather than dispel it. It’s a technical tour de force, assisted by the excellent performances of the cast and Carlo Rambaldi’s work on the monster’s face, although the latter has dated a little.
The rest of Fehmiu’s tale is more of a mixed bag in terms of filmmaking quality. The only major misstep is his visit to ‘keeper of the winds’ Aeolus (Vladimir Leib). Up until this point, the costume department has delivered flawless work, but here something went badly wrong. Leib and his entourage are saddled with silver Afro fright wigs and matching clothing. They look more like refugees from an Italian science-fiction picture of the period. It’s also worth noting that the six-headed Scylla and the whirlpool Charybdis are omitted entirely; probably due to the technical difficulties of bringing them to the screen in a convincing way. However, on the bright side, we get a very memorable Circe, courtesy of the strikingly beautiful Juliette Mayniel.
What holds the project together though, is some fine performances from the leading players. Fehmiu is excellent as Odysseus; brash and arrogant in the flashbacks to the start of his journey, but older and wiser in the telling of it. He even has doubts during his revenge on his wife’s suitors in the final act, something that his younger self would not have entertained. The actor is also plainly doing most of the sword combat himself. It’s not spectacular work, but it does avoid the over-choreographed unreality of more modern films, genuinely seeming more authentic to the period. And authenticity is a touchstone throughout the production, Fehmiu eating a meal with his fingers at the Phaeacians’ court (no cutlery in Ancient Greece, folks, not even knives!)
Dark-eyed Papas also makes the best of her role as the archetypal ‘woman who waits’ bringing a much-needed emotional edge to proceedings without overplaying her hand. It’s interesting to speculate why Silvana Mangano didn’t get that part instead. After all, she’d played the same role in ‘Ulysses’ (1954) opposite Kirk Douglas, and she was married to producer De Laurentiis at the time! It’s also curious that only Gabel’s beautiful Helen has her face whitened with makeup, because this was the standard practice for all noblewomen in Ancient Greece where the suntan was not socially acceptable.
Conversations between the Gods are kept to a minimum and rendered by offscreen voiceover accompanied by shots of statues. It’s not particularly satisfying, but it’s preferable to well-known actors making cameos on smoke-filled sets dressed in togas. Peter Hinwood apparently played Hermes, a half-decade before he found everlasting cult fame in the title role of ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ (1975). You’ll also recognise the young Gregorini in her debut role. A swift name change later and she was ‘Bond Girl’ Anya Amasova opposite Roger Moore in ‘Ths Spy Who Loved Me’ (1977) and another made her Mrs Ringo Starr. One of Gabel’s first screen credits was as Sophia Loren’s ‘swimming double’ in ‘Boy On A Dolphin’ (1957). Despite his memorable performance here, Nepo’s screen career was a short one. In real life, he was a celebrated Russian surrealistic artist whose best-known work is the wonderful painting ‘La Nuit de Walpurgis’.
Other technical merits boost the production, including an elegant score by composer Bruno Nicolai and excellent location work. The exteriors were entirely filmed in the former Yugoslavia, and its empty, sun-baked coasts are the perfect setting for this sweeping tale of men and mythology. As well as its television broadcast, the series was condensed into a 105-minute feature called ‘The Adventures of Ulysses’, This went to theatres over the next couple of years and apparently contained nearly all of Bava’s contribution.
Minor quibbles aside, this is an impressively faithful attempt to recreate Homer’s original poem on the screen. Filmmaking is rarely this ambitious or so well accomplished.